The awesome responsibility inherent in controlling the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal has given an increasing number of experienced former officials pause about contemplating a Donald Trump presidency. Fifty former senior officials, Republicans, stated in a letter opposing Trump that “he lacks the character, values and experience” to be President and would put our nation’s security at risk. A Washington Post writer went further, calling him “reckless”; characterizing his positions as ranging from “goofball to outrageous”.
Even though nuclear issues remain worrisome in the 2016 US election, other pressing security issues will immediately beset any incoming president. As my recent book, Borderless Wars outlined, much of the world faces a grey area between war and peace. Civil and military functions overlap in unprecedented ways in the U.S. scramble to address new types of security challenges. The security situation is “borderless” in many dimensions—borderless in territory; borderless in civil-military roles; and borderless in legality. There is a growing realization that this grey area has no boundaries. Rosa Brooks in her new book echoes the same theme.
Our current president, smart and level-headed as he is, together with his experienced national security team have been unable to devise long-term solutions to the unprecedented challenges. US military power is unparalleled, but is insufficient for the conflicts we face. We do not fully grasp the appeal and power of the insurgencies raging around the world. Cyber attacks – on targets in the private as well as public sector — are unrelenting.
While the United States and its allies tried to breathe life into the theoretical construct of counterinsurgency to bring the governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan towards democracy and modernity, insufficient attention was paid to the quality of governance delivered by officials we supported. Al Maliki in Iraq, once re-elected with US support, patently discriminated against Sunnis, paving the way for ISIS to establish control over vast swathes of territory inhabited by those disgruntled Sunnis. In Afghanistan, we supported the corrupt Karzai government that alienated the very population that was once disgusted with the Taliban. Now the Taliban has returned in force. The humanitarian impulse that led to the UN-authorized bombing of Libya did not lead even to the beginnings of a stable nation. The state has not become a bulwark against terrorism, but a foothold for it, as well as a passageway for refugees fleeing it.
The president who assumes office in 2017 must try to clarify whether we are in a war, and with whom. The international legal infrastructure is premised on that determination. Certain acts are permitted in war but different rules apply when we are at peace. Our congress has refused to make a current determination–failing in its constitutional duty, and weakening support for the United States around the world.
The next president should clarify which roles the military will assume, and which remain civilian. Is it wise for the CIA to have so much responsibility for military counter-terrorism, given its history of human rights abuses? To meet growing cyber attacks, civilian officials must work collaboratively with DoD which has greater expertise and funds. The incoming president must foster deeper civ-mil collaboration, not overlap and competition.
It will take not only maturity and experience for a new administration to address these issues. It will have to help redefine and renew the very institutions and alliances we have relied upon for international security. A Trump presidency would likely wreak havoc with them, but Hillary Clinton and her advisers will need to examine international security with fresh eyes and imagination, and not merely rely on past experience.